GLOUCESTER – Kristen Long knows about the shortage of workers in skilled trades from multiple sides.
As the work-based learning coordinator for Gloucester County Public Schools for the past four years, one of her responsibilities is exposing high school students to career options in carpentry, plumbing, HVAC, and more. It can be a challenge when students often are intimidated applying for positions in a career they aren’t sure they want to pursue.
In her former position as an office assistant at Rave Design + Build, a custom home builder in Gloucester, she was exposed to the problem of how to attract those students, who are potential employees.
“Obviously, the goal is to help meet the needs of our local workforce, and to prepare our students and provide opportunities here to connect them to their long-term goals, their future career,” she said.
In spring 2022, she developed a program to do just that, and thanks to a grant from the Gloucester Community Foundation and two local businesses (Millers Services and Rave Design), a one-week paid skilled trades camp was held in the summer. This year, two camps are being held. The first is set for June 26 through June 30 for rising Gloucester High School seniors, and the second will be held July 31 through August 4 for GHS rising sophomores and juniors. A third local business (C.A. Barrs Contractor) has been added.
“Everyone knows that there’s a huge shortage in employment across all disciplines and all industries, but the trades, especially,” she said. “I was trying to create a solution for them to connect because I kept getting asked how can we connect to high school students.”
For Long, it was important for students to have an experience with no commitment beyond the one week in case they discovered it wasn’t for them. She also thought paying the students for their work would draw more interest. Last year, there were eight students. This year, with increased funding from the community foundation, there is room for 20 positions (10 each week), and Long had received 25 applications by the deadline, which was the end of May.
“We are grateful for their funding and additional support this year to continue to grow the program and double the number of opportunities available to our students,” she said.
She also credits Tim Extine, who joined the high school staff last year and has sparked an interest in skilled trades.
“He has really worked hard to try to kind of transform our building trades program,” she said.
Students interested in attending one of the camps can be college bound. Long said they had a few such students last year, who wanted that hands-on skilled experience as well as the chance to learn about engineering or architecture.
“They really wanted to see the groundwork, field work side of that industry,” she said.
Most of the students, however, are interested in joining the workforce as soon as possible.
“They’re looking for an opportunity to get exposure to help them decide which pathway they want to take in the trades,” she said.
The students rotate through six trades areas, with first-hand experiences, and are paid $14 an hour.
“For example, one of our partners, Millers Services, the students arrive each morning just like their employees do at 7am at their main office location,” she said. “From there, they go out on their assignments each day in the trades.”
If their day involves plumbing, they will be matched with a master plumber mentor and go on calls. For Rave Design, students show up at the construction site one day and at the office another to see the design and architectural aspects of the business.
“The goal is to help students transition to give them an opportunity to experience the workforce in the trades, and then transition to full-time employment post-graduation,” Long said.
In fact, two students from last year’s camp accepted full-time positions with the participating businesses.
Since funds for the program are distributed through Gloucester County Public Schools, camp participants must be GCPS students. Down the road, that could change if additional funding sources can be found.
“I would love to see it become a regional program,” Long said, but that would require more business partners and expanding the program beyond two weeks. “I’ve had inquiries from parents of students and other school divisions like Middlesex, Matthews. I’ve had quite a bit of inquiries from the homeschool community.”
She also noted the businesses would like to see it expand, also.
“While they love working with Gloucester, and we’ve built a great relationship with each event, they’re also located all across the Peninsula and Middle Peninsula,” she said. “So, we would love to start attracting students as future employees from other areas as well.”